Feminism is about uplifting and empowering women; it’s about giving women the same opportunities and treatment men have always been afforded. Whitney Bell’s work is doing just that. Bell is a proud proponent of intersectional feminism, and has taken to the galleries of California to start a conversation about sexual harassment in the digital age. Technology has made it easy for uninvited dicks to figuratively land in your lap at any time, even in the safety of your own home.
In her art show, “I Didn’t Ask For This: A Lifetime of Dick Pics,” Bell recreates her home, complete with bed and bedside tables, couch, fridge…and about 150 framed dick pics on display, a visual example of how someone can invade your home, your safe space, without ever stepping foot in the door. She is also a writer for publications like Teen Vogue, HuffPost, Playboy and Cosmopolitan (to name a few), and addresses feminism, sexuality, dating, rape culture, medicinal marijuana and reproductive rights.
Bell’s installation and writing has created a dialogue around these issues, but not without hostility. If history has taught us anything, it’s that oppressors are never happy when the oppressed begin to vocalize their rejection of the status quo. During one “A Lifetime of Dick Pics” event, Bell experienced an incident that only furthered the point of her show. “It was at our second event in San Francisco,” she recalls. “I didn’t see him personally, but a guest saw him masturbating in a hallway . . . she immediately alerted security, and by the time they got over there, he had disappeared.” A man bought a ticket to an event about sexual harassment and attempted to harass the guests, specifically women, in attendance. “Not only are they giving me more stuff to talk about, but they are further confirming my point,” Bell maintains. “[Harassment] is about their [the harassers] own sexual gratification. This is about them exerting some kind of power. This is an extremely selfish act that isn’t about getting laid, and isn’t about pursuing a woman.”
And this isn’t the only incident Bell’s installation has faced. Men have asked to have their dicks showcased on the walls; one man showed women pictures on his phone of his penis ejaculating, as well as videos of him masturbating. Another man asked women if they wanted to see his penis, resulting in his removal from the venue. These incidents confirm the narrative that many men’s need for control often knows no bounds, and even an art show about sexual harassment can become the target of sexual harassment.
Bell’s devotion to these issues has resulted in aggressive threats from strangers. After her article “What To Get A Friend Post-Abortion” ran in Teen Vogue, she received a few “really scary threats.” I asked if she would write the article again, knowing the harassment to come, and she replied, “Absolutely. There was a ton of hatred—and those voices are the loudest—but there was also a ton of love. I got so many letters and emails from teen girls saying how much it helped them.” Bell stood by her unapologetic pro-choice stance, illustrating, “If I really am truly pro-choice, and if I really don’t think that a fetus at 15 weeks is a baby, then terminating that pregnancy isn’t taking a life. Terminating that pregnancy isn’t this life-changing, massive, monumental decision. It’s simply making the right decision for you at that time. It’s acknowledging your own limitations and where you are at and what you are capable of. I don’t think that is something to be ashamed of. In a weird way, I am not saying abortion is something to be proud of, but acknowledging what is right for you is something to be proud of.”
Teen Vogue has been open about their new, more progressive direction, led by the second African-American Editor in its 107-year history, Elaine Welteroth. Teen Vogue now covers politics and social justice, and encourages young readers to become civically engaged while still talking fun and fashion. Bell wholeheartedly supports this transformation. “I think the success they’ve had in the last year is indicative of the fact that teen girls are serious,” Bell states. “They do want to discuss this stuff. There is a market for this kind of conversation, and I am not afraid of putting myself on the line to further that.”
Her eloquent discourse about the importance of intersectionality and privilege as a white woman has been refreshing for many marginalized communities who are all too familiar with the detriment of white feminism silencing their voices. “I think empowerment is a privilege, just like race or socioeconomic status,” Bell explains. “The strength to find your own empowerment or the strength to act on your own empowerment is a privilege that not everyone has, so I think it would be selfish of me to not share mine.” In reference to her installation, she says, “We make this show as intersectional as possible. We make it an inclusive and safe space. On these panels, I have transgender activists and tons of queer activists, speakers and journalists. I want to elevate those voices, but I don’t want to speak for them.”
Empowering women is only one of her contributions to the movement for a more just society. She also does her due diligence to ensure her shop, Kidd Bell, is as inclusive as possible, with merchandise including t-shirts with the words “Queer” and “D.A.R.E to resist racism, sexism and homophobia” on them. Kidd Bell has partnered with Black Lives Matter and Happy Period, which supplies the homeless with the menstrual products they need, as well as the National Center For Transgender Equality. She also has a product line called “Fuck Housework” that benefits the National Domestic Violence hotline. “We try to not only empower the wearer with the clothing and products we have, but give them some agency in a time where it feels like we can’t do a lot to help each other—where it feels like it’s a constant battle,” Bell details. “I think giving people a small way to contribute with something easy is important.”
In an age where a man can be caught in the act of raping a woman and still only get three months in jail, and a presidential candidate can be caught joking about sexually assaulting woman and still win the presidency, we need more voices like that of Whitney Bell. We need women who are unapologetic about the right to autonomy over our own bodies. One of Bell’s shirt’s at her shop says it best: “Women don’t owe you shit.”
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